Our best predictions of the future, which is to say, when those predictions work, tend to be straight-line extrapolations based on trends that don’t change too much. Our worst predictions occur when previously stable trends start to do loopy nonlinear things. Trendquakes.
We’re in for a lot of those in the next few decades.
There’s a lot of talk about peaks of one kind or another, trends that have done nothing but grow in living memory now starting to reverse course. Peak oil has been a popular term since the publication of Ken Deffeyes’ book Hubbert’s Peak. The premise is that the rate at which we squeeze oil out of the ground has topped out and is now in a terminal decline. Tim O’Reilly has pointed out that we may also be in the era of peak consumption, or perhaps more aptly, peak waste.
In the American Scientist this month there’s an article that dwells not so much on the environmental concerns of burning all that oil as the limits to growth once that “free” energy starts to dry up: Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil. In it, the authors mention Richard Heinberg’s concept of peak everything.
One of the more interesting peaks is peak population. Everyone who was born in 1965 or before (hey, that’s me!) has seen the world’s population double to its current value of 6.8 billion. The world’s population will never double again. Peak population isn’t expected until 2050 or so, but there is an inescapable and sustained depopulation in our future, something that hasn’t happened in a thousand years.
Sustained depopulation will be new when it’s happening across the entire globe, but it’s happening already in more places than you might suspect. In Russia, it’s gotten so bad they call it “hypermortality”. Read about it in the World Affairs Journal: Drunken Nation: Russia’s Depopulation Bomb. Here’s another demographic snapshot of a changing world from the Wilson Quarterly: The World’s New Numbers. Birthrates are falling all over the world with the exception sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, Africa will become the global centroid of both Christianity and Islam.